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Interview: Shooting The Queen With Chris Hecker

High-frequency Hair-dos

Excellent and terrifying human behaviour sim SpyParty is still in development. I know this because party host Chris Hecker sent an invite to the RPS inbox, asking if we wanted to see the new art for the game. It would be an exclusive soiree just for us. I dressed for the occasion, meaning I put on clothes, and prepared my notebook with all the questions I didn't get to ask him when he interviewed himself.

In this talk: sniping royalty, hair as a game mechanic, the influence of League of Legends and Dota, and the future of Spy Party.

Chris says: Yes, the dog is fully animated. Well, it doesn't have a lower body, but the head is articulated and it can look around and react to what's happening.  I don't know if people are going to shoot the dog or not.  Technically, it's part of her mesh and skeleton, so you can shoot Ms. J by shooting the dog, so I'd have to add special code to disallow shooting the dog, but on the other hand, I can't imagine adding a sound effect for shooting the dog, that seems like it's going too far.  However, there's a glass breaking sound if you shoot somebody having a drink, so there is precedent.  This needs serious design thought, and consultation with an ethics committee.

RPS: You've put the Queen in your game!

She's got a dog in her purse.

RPS: She does have a dog in her purse. Is that a conscious effort to stop English people from winning?

Do you think you're statistically more or less likely to shoot her?

RPS? Me? I don't care. But I'm aware that some people might be of a Royalist inclination.

Modern Game design is all about metrics, so since you're currently the only English person I'm talking to, if you had to say what percentage of Royalists vs not, what would you say?

RPS: This is difficult. I'm not [a Royalist]. I'm Scottish...

I never know. There's an entire YouTube video about what to call people who have a Commonwealth accent... like you're not supposed to say 'British', but you can't say 'English'? Or is it vice versa? I can never remember,

RPS: You should probably say 'British'. I look upon Royalists as a strange breed, anyway. Two million of these people will descend on London and watch Royals do 'important things'. That's quite a lot of humanity there. Britain's about 60 million people? Working out a percentage of that is kind of difficult, but personally it wouldn't bother me to shoot the Queen [Post-interview Craig note: IN THE GAME], and I'm probably going to get arrested for saying that.

The gap between what people think they think and what they actually think is relatively large in psychological terms. So people are like "Oh, I'd never do that," and then they do it instantly. So do you think there'd even be a moment's hesitation? Is it better meta playing for you to pick the Queen even subconsciously?

RPS: I wouldn't pause, but if I was playing someone with an English accent then I might go the Queen, just to presume that there might be a small possibility...

...that they would be hesitating?

RPS: Yup. That's the only cultural standpoint I can see just looking at the art.

I think that dog, the emotional quality of the dog, swamps any Royalist sentiment. Don't you think?

RPS: That's quite a sweet little thing, I guess? But the thing is, to my rough knowledge those dogs are assholes as well.

Yeah. It sounds like there's not a lot of meta... you'll shoot the dog instantly as well.

RPS: Yeah. When I played BioShock I snapped the girl's necks. But the only thing that stopped me, eventually, was not snapping the necks made a pleasant noise. The musical tone was nicer.

Ah. So you're saying if I put a yelp or something you might be averse? Which I'm almost certainly not going to do.

RPS: Well then that dog's getting shot. So all these new models add depth and complexity to the characters. It almost seems like you've brought character. Do you have any sort of backstories?

Not yet, in the sense that right now they're all named like-- the person you're insisting on calling "the Queen"-- is Ms J. I'm just lettering them until we pick names. I want to involve the community in name-picking, which we did with the first set of characters. I just posted a thing on Facebook and people suggested tonnes of different funny names. So I want to do some kind of crowd-thing again with the names. There's a new design thing I want to do. It's part of making the game even deeper than it already is, and it's called "Dossiers". I want to have a background on each one with gameplay relevant stuff: maybe the General drinks too much and so never refuses a drink. That's a tell, right? So then when you're casting a party, and you're deciding who to be, their behaviour actually matters.

Chris says: Mr. G is the first character from the old art that we've directly replaced with the new art, so he's the first time we can really do a before/after image like this!  Look how good he looks!  Also, John's new guy looks pretty good too, I guess.

RPS: That was going to be one of my questions. Given the people now have actual character, would you have elements that the players would have to roleplay?

Yes. Obviously in any kind of competitive game e-sporty kind of thing the actual game is when you're playing it for real--it's boiled down to characteristics--the term roleplay is a little loaded, so you're not going to be like: "Forsooth!" But, yes! These people will eventually, when get the dossiers thing in, there's going to be characteristics that they all have. Things like how much you drink, how talkative you are in a conversation, how much you like art and sculpture and looking out the window. These will all have tuning variables that are kind of invisible to newbies. Both newbie spies and newbie snipers won't notice it, but when you get into elite play they'll be soft tells. They'll be behavioural. So, you'll have to roleplay in that sense. And when you cast the party at the beginning, you'll have to be careful about what you're choosing.

There's another thing that's going to come in with the dossiers that's called Recommendations, which is a player-suggested mechanic. Say you're in a conversation, you can say "Oh man, the statues here are really cool," which will increase the likelihood of other people going to the statues who were in that conversation. So now the sniper's got a tonne of people at the statues now... where they all in a conversation before? Who's the odd man out? Right? And one of the characteristics will be how influencable the person is. So, whether the recommendations change the behaviour or not. So you're going to have this layer upon layer of things where... I'm really inspired by LoL and Dota games. In the sense that like I had the Dossier idea a long time ago. It's kind of the first thing you think of, you know? As soon as you have characters you're like: well they should all have individual characteristics. And I was sure it was way too complicated, there's no way to do that because this game's already so insanely complicated. And then I look at LoL and it's 150 characters, all with characteristics. And people love it.

That level of detail and that level of complexity adds a tonne of stuff. I was listening to Adam Saltzman--who's the Canabalt guy--he used to be a big Street Fighter player, and when he stopped he was at the homework stage. He was: "I just have to do more moveset studying or I'm not going to be able to get better." At elite play you have that level on all these games, there's a homework aspect to it. Some people won't get past that, and that's fine and you want to make sure the game works underneath that level, but you also want to have that level. If you're playing Counter-Strike really hardcore, you learn the weapon sounds. That's an AK around the corner. The dossiers thing has been an idea for a long time and I chickened out early on. I didn't know if I could put that much complexity in, and then LoL and Dota showed there's no limit to the complexity that people will play.

RPS: The reason I was thinking about that was the man in the wheelchair, because he's going to be moving differently no matter what.

Yeah! I just added vehicles to the game, basically. It's like Battlefield/SpyPartyfield. There's already a guy with a cane--the older black gentleman--and he moves differently already. That's one of the nice things about the custom animations for all the characters. We're paying a huge time cost for doing that, but it means we can do crazy stuff, like having a dog in a purse. His walk cycle is basically wheels turning and hands moving forward on the joystick.

Chris says: SpyParty characters are about 12000 triangles or so.  Ms. H's hair has 23767 triangles in it, so there are two full characters' worth of triangles in her hair alone.  It's also rigged, so it has a skeleton inside it so it can move plausibly while she talks.  It's worth it because it looks so awesome, and really makes her silhouette distinct.  We focus on silhouettes a lot when we develop characters, which is why things like hats and hair are so important.  We actually spent a ton of time during the character art style development phase working on how hair should look.  I think hair simulation looks terrible in games (and CG movies), so we wanted something stylized and illustrative and animatable but that didn't need a zillion bones or a special hair system.

RPS: You mentioned in your email that the lady's hairdo has more polygons than some of the full character models of the older art style?

These guys average 12 or 15 thousand polygons, which is a lot compared to the old art models which around a thousand, but it's not that much compared to super high-end next gen platforms. It's just John's [Cimino, artist] really, really good. We use them well. But her hair has 30'000 polygons, so there's two characters in her hair alone, but man does it look good. And it's all rigged, so it moves when she talks and stuff.

RPS: Part of the reason I was asking is because, if her hair is so well-defined, is there a chance people could use that as a game mechanic?

For that very reason, the "look at" stuff, that stuff's not under player control. It's all automated. You could imagine a really cool gameplay associated with people looking, right? But it would get spies shot constantly. There's no way you're going to emulate at a level of fidelity exactly what the AI's doing, so I have rules. People always look at who's talking, they might look at the thing they're picking up. The hair stuff like that is going to be graphical. It will enable you to see some of the animations, like when you steal the microphone out of a book you turn your head, and her head is going to be more visible than a person with a less high-frequency hair-do. So in that case it does. That just drops right into the meta, right? So if you pick her, it's riskier to pick the Transfer Microfilm mission. What we've found so far is the game sort of auto-balances on those sort of small things. We're going to have to tune the animation so the level of obviousness is variable. People right now pick the larger character to be the Ambassador so you can hide near them when you bug them. The guy in the wheelchair is lower than everybody else. He'll be harder to spot behind people, but he probably moves a little clunkier.

Chris says: Mr. I is in a wheelchair, so in effect we just added vehicles to SpyParty.  Initially he's going to move around like the other characters, which will probably look terrible since wheelchairs do not move like walking people, but eventually he'll have a completely custom movement system.  He's lower to the ground, so he might be a good choice as Spy because he'll always have good cover, but then again, that makes him suspicious.  I think the dot-com turtleneck snob look is going to get him shot a lot.

RPS: His movement to swap something over should be more exaggerated, I guess?

He's going to have to lean over in the wheelchair to pick things up. The nice thing is the game design can suck up a lot of those differences. A lot of games, you have to not have those differences: "All the characters need to be within this height parameter because that's how pick-up animations are." Since we're doing all custom animations, and because the game design is about perception and you know what you're looking for, it kinds of auto-balances in that sense.

RPS: I'm really glad you put the replay system in. The game's one massive learning experience, and it's tough to learn if you don't have an overview of what's going on. Has it helped people to realise that you're not always being watched?

I have that problem myself. I'm constantly not doing missions on time, because I just know they're on me. You just think you're always made. And so the replay have helped with that. I think that's just one of the plain old cognitive biases that the game plays with, this idea that I just know he's on to me. I wrote a blog post about it and there's this narcissism, solipsism, egocentrism thing where you're: "I'm the centre of the Universe," you know? You might be sometimes, but 90% of the time when you think you are you're not.

The replays thing helps with that. People have been commenting on how much better the newbies are. Newbies and mid-level players are way better than they used to be, because of two main things. One is streams. Most people who are mid-level watch a lot of streams. They have a lot of gameplay footage and a lot of commentary to look at. And also the replay system. The one downside of the replay system is that it's really slowed-down matches. The game'll be over, and they'll spend longer than the period of the game scrubbing through to see exactly what they did wrong, or where the person was looking. I'm super-proud of that. It took forever, and it's really a cool and people have been saying it's better than shipped game's replay systems. I have a tonne of stuff I still want to do with it. I'm going to hook it into the spectation system when we get that working, and so if you're spectating a match, you can just grab the time-slider and just slide it back and rewind while the match is still going on. For casting and instant replays, it'll be super-cool.

What I really want to do is a replay database which'll start collecting all the replays, so there'll be this giant replay database, so you want to watch how this player plays another player? Well okay, here's all these replays you can download.

RPS: I was looking back at all the RPS coverage, and it turns out the first story RPS wrote on SpyParty was in 2010.

Was that Kieron?

RPS: And that was the year after you announced it as well. So that's five years you've been working on it.

Let's call it four years, shall we? I got laid off from Maxis at the end of 2009. It's actually more like ten years, but not full-time. We did an indie gamejam one year where we got the Sims assets. We had permission to use the Sims assets from EA to do a gamjam about people interacting. So I had the idea for SpyParty there, and kind of didn't get it working. I'm so glad, because had I crapped out a four-day version maybe I would've just been done. But it was stewing in the back of my head when I was working on Spore for a really long time, and Spore I had to step away from any game design stuff and just focus on creature animation stuff. The game design part of my game was just sitting here spinning on SpyParty and thinking of all the options, and thinking: "Man, this was a really cool idea, I need to go back to this." I got permission to work on it part-time, just like an hour here or there, but I couldn't really do much while I was working there. So after I got laid off, I was planning on going full-time indie in January 2010, but I got laid-off in September 2009, maybe was the kick to the butt. Would I have left the cushy job to do it? I don't know.

So it's been a long time, and even longer if you think about the gamejam version. It's definitely going too slow, but we are making constant progress. Since I'm still doing the "depth first, accessibility later" methodology. Things like the replay system... I wasn't sure how much to talk to you guys about the replay system, because it's such a hardcore feature. Now that the new characters are coming in, and we're going to start getting new art in, though I think it's going to look more outwardly like the kind of progress that people are traditionally used to seeing on game development. You know? More characters, more maps and missions, and things like that.

RPS: What's it like devoting so much of your time to one project?

I have this weird personality trait--and this is both a plus and a minus, let's be clear--I have infinite endurance. I don't get bored with something as long as it's an interesting thing. I'm really into SpyParty and how it's coming out, and I think it's a really deep game where the top players have over 400 hours of gameplay, three minutes at a time in the game, and I want to take it to a thousand hours. The Recommendations, and the Dossiers, and there's an Interrogation system we want to put in. I think those three are going to take the game to a thousand hour game, which puts it in the realm of a LoL, Dota, and Counter-Strike thing. I think we're lucky that I have a 400 hour game out of an indie game, but I think it needs to be even deeper.

That's my way of saying there's a lot of stuff in the game that keeps me interested. It's also directly in line with all the stuff I've been talking about for the past 20 years about what games are lacking: games about human behaviour, games about subtlety, not blowing stuff up, and so I happen to have a game idea that's able to cash cheques that I've been writing for 20 years in my rants. So I'm really motivated to do it for that reason. And I just also love playing the game. I get my ass handed to me constantly playing the better players, but I even like losing in the game. So if the thing's inherently interesting, I don't get bored with it. I don't burn out in that sense. I was on Spore for six years, everyone else was ready to kill themselves, and at the end I was like: "Look, this game's not good enough, we should keep working on it."

The upside of that is you can do really long-term projects. The idea of doing a 3D multiplayer 20 unique animated characters indie game is totally insane, right? With two people it's just nuts, but that translates into time. Either you get money from someone or you take a lot of time. So the time part's not a problem for me. The downside is, because I don't feel the pressure... people are like "Oh my god, I'm going to kill myself if I don't get this game out." I don't have that. I feel like that works with my perfectionism in both positive and negative ways. The positive is the game looks really good and is playing really well and I'm really proud of it. And the negative way is: "We can't possibly release that tiny, minor update because it's not totally perfect!" So there goes another two weeks, and so it's easy to eat up four years, five years, six years when you're doing small stuff and trying to make it perfect.

I do think that I need to pick up the pace. I think that having the art in and having the characters come in, and now we're not concepting and it's just production, I think towards the end of the year, if I get the Recommendations, Dossiers, and Interrogation system in, that'll be the end of the core mechanics. There'll still be maps and missions and minor stuff. But if those work the way I hope they would then that's the game. There's the game of SpyParty 1.0. And there'll be a whole bunch of stuff. It's easy to add a gun to Counter-Strike, well, it's easy to add a mission to SpyParty, but the core thing of how you move, how you jump, how you shoot in a shooter game, those things will be done once we get these three things in there. I'm pretty sure it'll take it to a thousand hour game, in which case it's where I want it to be in terms of the depth. And then I can start working on the accessibility stuff, which is a lot easier. Tutorial modes and things like that.

I'm really proud of SpyParty, and I think it has this potential to be this perfect jewel of human behaviour. It's kind of living up to its potential for me, so I want to make sure that's what happens.

RPS: What about financial pressure?

Well financial pressure's a real thing. The one pressure I do feel is that I have a daughter who wants to take ice-skating lessons. That's where the early access beta is really great. I'm still living off savings, it's currently not covering.... cause I pay John a full games industry salary and he's so amazing which makes your savings go away very fast, but it's close. I don't know if you noticed, but I redid the webpage and made a trailer and stuff like that? That was purely like: "Alright, I've got to get the sales up a little bit, so maybe it's time to make the webpage not look like a default Wordpress install," which is sales 101 type stuff. I've got a list of things like that. Make cooler videos that show off what we're doing in a nice, flattering way that makes people want to share. Right now it only takes Paypal and some people can't use Paypal, so I'm going to add Amazon and some other processing stuff. Simple stuff that's not core to the game and hopefully doesn't take that long.

The early access thing is a great way to fund games if your game's compatible with it. For early access, I identified three characteristics that work for early access. Not every game works with early access. Jon [Blow] couldn't put The Witness on early access cause it's a puzzle game. An in development puzzle game is just a terrible puzzle game until it's done. But the three things that I've identified are: competitive multiplayer, so replayability in that way; or user-generated content; or procedural generation. So if you've got one of those things--Minecraft had two of them, it had UGC and procedural generation--if you've got one of those things your game is possibly compatible with early access, and I think early access type funding is the healthiest way to fund development, because people are just buying the game from you, right? I'm not promising them t-shirts and figurines, I'm not asking for a tonne of money up front and trying to budget it to make sure it works. If I can just get the sales per day up to the point where it pays my burn rate then I've got infinite runway, and that's what people want in the long run, you know? And people who don't mind playing with a little bit of a rough thing, but having input in the development can do that. Pay me $15 and they can participate.

The Recommendations, one of the big new gameplay things, has come from players. Two of the recent levels I've added have been player suggested ideas. The next mission I'm going to add was a player suggested idea in the beta forums, so it's not just fake influence on the game. When I've got a player who's played 8000 games of my game, I listen to those. If they have some thoughts, the way something's tuned, or even a new idea for something. I listen to that.

RPS: With all that stuff, it's interesting that you're not on Steam. All that stuff is what Steam does really well.

I've got Steam Early Access kind of in my back pocket if I need it, so that's a good feeling. In other words if I can't get the sales off of my website, I can always go to Steam Early Access and that would solve the problem. But I don't want to do that yet because the community is so amazing. It's so supportive. You log on and people are like: "Hey, how are you doing? Do you want a mentor game?" Suggesting ideas and the support is just so great, and I worry that by having a lot more players come in fast that it'll be hard to maintain that. So what I want to do is build the community slowly. So Steam Early Access is an option, and I probably will do that at some point, but I'd much rather have the help of the community and pay for the game this way right now, and then go on Steam Early Access when it's a little more finished.

Chris says: The reference for Ms. F is Alice, John's girlfriend! She's got an 'equestrian fashion' outfit on, which I picked early on as a kind of nod towards

RPS: What have you looked into in terms of user created content?

So, if you look into SpyParty then there's a few different types of content in the game. There's maps, missions, characters... those are the big ones. Characters: it's really hard to do a character this good. If you can do a character this good, you're not making characters for fun indie game that you have on the side, you are employed and making a lot of money in the game's industry. And the animations have very specific timing requirements. Missions are code. In SpyParty, behaviour is the core of the game. It's not a datafile you fill out. So the next mission is going to be lifting the Ambassador's finger-prints. So you have to pick up the last thing the Ambassador picked-up. Like if they pick up a briefcase, you've gotta be the first person to pick it up. If they pick up a statue, then you need to be the first person there. So that just cross-cuts all the other missions. I need to know what things--right now it's books and statues and briefcases, but eventually it'll be drinks where they put down empties and the waiter comes around and cleans them up-- and there's no scripting language. That's deep, deep in the C code, so that's not going to happen. But levels are totally going to be easy, so the first thing I'm going to do is maps. Right now I do them in MAYA, but I'm going to make a Blender plug-in for exporting them.

There's a thread in the beta forum about map suggestions, and people will do paintbrush mock-ups. So I think it'll be pretty easy to allow that. I think early next year I'll allow that. That would be really cool, because then you'd have a map database, and I'd just take the best ones and have John pretty them up and plop them in the game. I think it'll be a long time before characters and missions could be done, though.

RPS: You were going to talk about interrogations...

You know how there's a security guard in the back, who just stands around and doesn't do anything right now? The sniper will be able to tell the guard to interrogate someone. He'll tap them on the back, and then he'll ask them questions from their dossier or from the party. Like: "What did you think of the statues?". So that obviously locks the character down for ten or 15 seconds, so if the Sniper is paying attention--meaning zoomed in on that conversation--they can see how the Spy reacts. It'll be a simple branching conversation¸ some kind of call and response type deal, but enough that you can lie. I want you to be able to bluff the security guard. If the sniper is zoomed on the interrogation right then, the sniper can see the responses so it'll be much harder to bluff, but if the sniper's somewhere else, you can bluff the security guard. And then after that, the guard just gives a report to the sniper, like "Yeah, seemed believable," or "looks a little fishy". And then what'll also happen is if you're zoomed in you can keep prompting for questions, and every time you do this it adds time to the clock. So there's a really harsh cliff for doing this as a sniper.

The hope is this allows the sniper to be embodied in the party in a way, and that with this bluffing mechanic, where you're nervous because you're being interrogated but you're playing it cool and you get away with it and the sniper lowlights you.

RPS: A lot of the Sniper side of things is just staring, as intense as it is.

I don't want to add so many things that you can't do that perception thing, because that's the core of the game. One of the key themes of the sniper is attention as a resource, and that's why tunnelling is a danger, because you're spending all your attention on this one person and meanwhile the spy is trapsing around the rest of the party. And so I want to do mechanics that are attention oriented, so you can see how interrogation is an attention thing. Another one is I want to have some maps that have a security camera you can rewind, so you can use the replay system in-game. But if you're watching the camera rewind, you're not watching the rest of the party.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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